The final act of my working weekend this time around is to conduct a wedding in St Peter’s early on Sunday afternoon; how very apt that is for the Feast of the Holy Family we are celebrating now! Funnily enough, the happy couple were not aware of the concurrence when they were planning their big day. On the face on it this should make my life a bit easier, as I can use the coincidence of the Feast and the ceremony as a theme for the wedding sermon. Actually it makes it more difficult, as most families don’t regard themselves ‘holy’ in the commonly understood sense.
In the Catholic Church we have very clear-cut and unambiguous definitions and rules about marriage. This kind of clarity is actually very good and useful, and I’m not going to call for any revolutionary change to them, because their purpose is to support and to safeguard the family as a whole alongside each of its individual members. The only problem is that life in practical terms is never black-and-white, circumstances are rarely clear-cut and problems are not easily solvable. Sometimes choices are only between bad or worse; and at times even such an uncomfortable set of options isn’t available. There are so many factors, internal and external, affecting the family that its survival and development seems to be a miracle.
We call the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph ‘holy’, and rightly so. But we do it with the benefit of hindsight. Seen from the outside by their neighbours, that family possibly didn’t appear holy at all; rather the opposite. There was something that the people of those days would have found deeply disturbing about the relationship of Mary and Joseph: she became pregnant before they were officially married. In St Luke’s gospel, in the passage about their journey to Bethlehem, she was described as Joseph’s betrothed; and that was shortly before she gave birth. St Matthew reported that, upon receipt of the news of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph had been going to break off their relationship quietly in order to circumvent a scandal; the intervention of an angel was required to change his mind. We can discuss the particular cultural aspects of marital arrangements in the ancient Jewish communities in the Holy Land, but there is a clear aura of the unusual nature of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. At face value, the situation described in today’s gospel can be perceived as controversial, as the parents’ apparent negligence led to their twelve-year-old going missing for three days. Three days. Hardly a holy family, then…
Pope Francis, involved in pastoral work on the ground up to the moment of his election, seems to have such a clear understanding of the many difficulties and challenges faced by many families. He understands that people need support and help in their complicated lives; and the more helplessly entangled they are, the greater is the need to help them. Families are very rarely ‘holy’ from the outset, and they don’t become ‘holier’ any time soon after. Their ‘holiness’ is the aim, something to be achieved in the course of life. When we come to understand this, we can set out to become more supportive of those who may struggle in their marriage or in their family life. Judging and condemnation is easy, but it feeds only a selfish sense of superiority. The offering of practical support and help is far more challenging and time consuming – but that’s the only way to make families ‘holy’.